Our amazing and fantastic friend TinTin stops by the station to talk about short stories. When asked about what she likes about them, she says, “What’s amazing about the short story form is how, despite their brevity, they can be absolutely complete and be so involving, much like any other six hundred page novel. In short stories, the good ones at least, you don’t ask for more of the characters or more of the story, everything is there in that 1,000 or 20,000 words. Whether it’s a complex portrait of an individual or a light, humurous piece, in less than an hour, I get a quick bite of life, with plenty of time to spare to do my own drab life things.”
Before Roy Spivey, I only know Miranda July by the reputation that precedes her. She is quite a controversial persona, juggling a handful of creative pursuits. She is a film director, a screenwriter, an actor, an author, and a performance artist. Her creations in these aforementioned mediums have always generated reactions from opposite ends of the spectrum. You either love her or you hate her. And it’s surprisingly easy to find an I Hate Miranda July Tumblr and blog entry in the big bad internet world. Twee, fey, and indulgently eccentric are words that have been attached to her. And no, they don’t mean that in a good way. She has been said to revel too much in the strangeness that her narrative begins to appear contrived, and weird without a point. And therefore (gasp), not serious literature. With all these brouhaha, naturally, I had to know for myself. Enter Roy Spivey.
Roy Spivey is a short story written by Miranda July, which appeared in The New Yorker in 2007 and published in 2008 in The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith. It is about a woman who finds herself seated next to a famous Hollywood movie star (whom she cryptically calls Roy Spivey, an anagram of his name) on a plane and how this chance encounter has carried her through the dark moments of her life, with her holding on to the last digit of Roy Spivey’s phone number like a lifeline.
During the first half of the story, Miranda July seems to play everything for laughs. Starting from their conversation about the tabloids, (which amusingly and unassumingly, Spivey calls the “The bloids. Or the tabs.”) to the armpit washing mishap in the cramped airplane bathroom, to the hilariously weird Febreze armpit spraying, and the even weirder shoulder biting. And at this point, I am already getting a sense of both Roy Spivey and our unnamed woman narrator. Spivey is your standard movie star with all the world’s charm running through his veins, and he unabashedly uses it every chance he gets, and the people around him respond accordingly. In a way, it sort of feels like a commentary on celebrity worship. Now as for our unnamed woman narrator, I was bracing myself for a twee-wallflower type of protagonist, if I am to believe what the bloids say about Miranda July. And yeah, the narrator does feel to be one to a certain extent. She describes herself as “a tall, but otherwise undistinguished woman,” but July mines this “unassertive persona” to great effect that the shyness doesn’t become hackneyed or grating but real and relatable and ultimately somewhat sad. Now what initially began as an amusing and casual celebrity encounter turns into something much stranger and darker.
“During this time I was careful not to think about my life. My life was far below us, in an orangey-pink stucco apartment building. It seemed as though I might never have to return to it now. The salt of his shoulder buzzed on the tip of my tongue. I might never again stand in the middle of the living room and wonder what to do next. I sometimes stood there for up to two hours, unable to generate enough momentum to eat, to go out, to clean, to sleep. It seemed unlikely that someone who had just bitten and been bitten by a celebrity would have this kind of problem.”
At the end of this chance encounter, Roy Spivey gives her his phone number but missing the last digit, which he asks her to memorize.
“I looked at the number.”
“It’s missing a digit.”
“I know. I want you to just memorize the last number, O.K.?”
They say goodbye through a secret language devised by Spivey and never see each other again. And over the course of our unnamed woman narrator’s life the number four has become her life buoy and she clings to it with an iron grip. She whispers “four” during intercourse with her husband. She whispered “four” when her dad had lung cancer. She said “four” as she was bailing her daughter out of trouble in Mexico over the phone. And years after, she finally dialed Spivey’s number only to find out that she had waited too long.
Sure celebrity encounters are memorable, but don’t they usually end up in the back pocket of your brain, perhaps as a handy anecdote in a drab dinner party or two? So I find it quite unsettling how potent this seemingly casual encounter turned out to be for the woman narrator. It prompts me to think about who she is, how she is. It has been established that she is somewhat strange, if wanting to enlarge your vagina is any indication. It has also been established that she is unhappy from the moment she met Spivey, and it continues on for the most part of her life. She seems to get into a state of lethargy, an almost paralysis, on a regular basis. But the reasons for which are never revealed. She now has a husband and a daughter. One would think she is leading a full and happy life, but not quite.
So is this why she clings to Spivey? Because with him, for a brief moment, she felt special? Loved? Wanted? Happy? But whatever the reason, the fact of the mater is that the encounter was important to her. And I just felt an aching sadness. How this woman can turn from intriguingly ambiguous to devastatingly broken is brilliant of Miranda July. And how with skillful ease, she manages to turn the story from light-hearted hahaha to a piercing despondency, just like that.
You may read the story online here.
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